Platonism and Christianity

Provisional outline of lecture series beginning Monday, 9 November 2020


Introduction

At the heart of the Christian canon is the exemplary man Jesus promoting a way to enlightenment through cryptic parables. Yet the four divergent accounts of his sayings and deeds are devoid of essential Christian teachings familiar to those who have grown up with them. There is barely any theology, certainly no Trinity, let alone any clear statement of Jesus’s relation to it; and not a word on his mother’s progress from Immaculate Conception to heavenly assumption. Consider how the very doctrine of heaven, and the soul’s expected journey there, has long motivated Christian ethics. Yet, if the books of the New Testament inform church teachings on the soul’s immortality, then they also present alarming inconsistencies. The Judaic origins of Christianity are hard to miss, and yet the Old Testament introduces as much confusion as clarity, if only because its world filled with competing deity challenges Christianity’s essential monotheism. The sources of this and other core doctrines must be found elsewhere in the broader Hellenistic culture out of which Christianity emerged. It was from Platonism that Christian theology was first borrowed and then debated and transformed. Rediscovering the Platonic influence on early Christianity opens up a world of Hellenistic philosophy that has profoundly influenced Western civilisation in ways long since forgotten or obscured.

Session 1 | From Plato to Christian Platonism

This historical overview starts with the mystery cults and early Greek philosophies that apparently influenced Plato. It then moves through the teachings of Plato to the flourish of Platonism in the Hellenistic world during the three long centuries before the emergence of Christianity as a Jewish sect. The direct Biblical influence of Platonism (and Stoicism) is found explicit in the Book of Wisdom, the Gospel of John and Paul’s evangelising to non-Jewish congregations. But only when the early Church fathers apply their highly imaginative allegorical interpretations across the entire Christian canon do we arrive at the religion endorsed by Emperor Constantine with a Hellenistic theology at its very core. During the following centuries the Platonic roots of Christianity was lost, especially to the Western Church, only to be revived in the Renaissance and then lost again with the Reformation and Enlightenment.

Further Reading

[to be provided]

Session 2 | Platonic monotheism & the soul’s journey toward divine union

A basic outline of Plato’s mysticism starts with his Theology of Forms. The soul is first ‘reminded’ of the insensible ‘Forms’ in its observation of sensible things. But the philosopher’s education aims at fully turning the mind’s eye around to see more clearly these Forms and then journey up towards their ultimate singular source in the mystical unknown.

Further Reading

[to be provided]

Session 3 | Mythos: teaching and interpreting allegorically

If all knowledge is divine, and the higher wisdom is unsayable, then special techniques are required in the teaching. Allegory has the power to show what cannot be said. We consider some allegories of Plato that have great affinity with later Christian stories and doctrines. Then we consider how allegorical interpretation of scripture was used by the early Church fathers to bring Platonic teachings into the doctrinal mainstream.

Further Reading

[to be provided]

Session 4 | The divine logos: through him all things were made

Before the Christian Trinity was the earlier Christian doctrine of the divine father/son interpreted to express the Platonic principle of creation whereby the original unity (the father) emanates by means of its immanent logos-son. Beginning with the problem of self-creation in monotheism, we consider how this was presented and resolved in Platonism, and then move to consider some of its misunderstandings and corruptions in the endless Trinitarian controversy.

Further Reading

[to be provided]

Session 5 Mysticism and negative theology

Platonic mysticism finds a route to Medieval and Renaissance Christian mystics through a lineage that includes writings accepted as Christian, but that show little more than a nominal attachment to the teachings of Jesus.

Further Reading

[to be provided]

Session 6 Christianity as old as creation

Christianity’s borrowings from outside its Judeo-Christian narrative have always sat uncomfortably with its claim to exclusive revelations of divine truth. From the very beginning, and down through the centuries, Christian apologists have used a variety of strategies to account for the transmission of Greek wisdom in their teachings. Sometimes it was said that wisdom was given to the Greeks by the Christian God to smooth the way for his similar (but somehow more profound) revelations through the Christ. At other times the claim to exclusivity was softened. In the Renaissance it was almost entirely removed with the notion that essential divine teachings have been passed down from the earliest times through all the great and ancient traditions. That is, just before the Reformation came crashing through, there briefly flourished an image of Christianity inclusive of other traditions and as old as creation itself.

Further Reading

[to be provided]